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WASHINGTON — If Republicans lose key Senate races in the 2016 election, they won't have tea party challengers — and the well-funded conservative outside groups backing them — to blame.
Outside conservative groups have poured millions into trying to oust incumbent senators in recent election cycles. They didn’t hesitate to take on now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014 and successfully ousted six-term former Illinois Sen. Dick Lugar in 2012.
The expensive, intra-party primary battles have frustrated establishment Republicans and likely caused the party to either lose some seats or need to devote more resources on candidates after damaging primaries. But with millions spent attacking GOP incumbents and little to show for in 2014, major conservative groups and activists are showing much more restraint this time: They have yet to endorse any of the conservative candidates challenging incumbent senators in 2016.
Conservative outside groups are taking a more calculated approach to endorsing the few primary challengers that have even announced their bids. Instead of making risky bets on unseating Senate incumbents, they are choosing to target two open seats in Indiana and Florida, where they think they have a much higher — and much cheaper — shot at sending a conservative to the Senate.
Several groups have endorsed Rep. Ron DeSantis for the GOP nomination to replace Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Marlin Stutzman to replace retiring Indiana Sen. Dan Coats.
The groups' only victory in 2014 was in an open seat: They supported Sen. Ben Sasse in Nebraska to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns.
For similar reasons, they're also focusing more on House races, weighing support for some challengers and already spending resources to protect members of the House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of about 40 conservative members who are top targets for some establishment groups.
"We want to make sure the House Freedom Caucus has the resources they need to win re-election," said Jason Pye, spokesman for FreedomWorks. "Those are our guys. We want to make sure they are protected."
FreedomWorks for America has already spent about $200,000 on TV ads supporting some members of the caucus, including Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who is reportedly a "prime target” for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pye — along with other representatives from other groups — stressed that they are looking for Senate challengers to articulate their path to victory, and none of the Senate primary challengers they've spoken to have been able to prove they are viable contenders.
Kelli Ward, an Arizona state legislator who is challenging perennial conservative target Sen. John McCain, announced this week she would be resigning from her state Senate seat to focus on her race against the former GOP presidential nominee.
For months, conservative activists have been trying to recruit strong contenders to take on McCain, but so far their top choices have either declined to run or are still mulling a bid.
In the meantime, Ward has been trying to win over right-wing groups in Arizona and Washington. She recently traveled to D.C. to interview with several groups — but walked away with no endorsements from the major, big-money conservative groups, at least not yet.
Sources familiar with the conversations said they were either not convinced she could defeat McCain or wanted to wait for a stronger candidate. Ward does have endorsements from some smaller conservative groups including Conservative Campaign Committee PAC.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ward said she’s well aware her race is viewed as a “David and Goliath” contest. “Someone has to be fearless," she said. "Someone has to take on the challenge. We the people should never be afraid of our elected representatives. That’s un-American. When people say they are afraid, that’s when you know it’s time for a change.”
Ward said she could still win support from bigger groups if she she is able to build more grassroots momentum in Arizona. She reported raising about $450,000 and loaning her campaign an additional $85,000 in the third quarter, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed in October.
“I have a late primary, and I’m willing to be patient,” Ward said, adding that if a conservative candidate wins the GOP presidential nomination that could help her win over some well-funded groups. “Once we get the conservative nominee, the groups will get behind conservative reinforcements for the nominee.”
Despite having a much higher name recognition and a financial advantage over Ward, McCain told BuzzFeed News that Ward's current lack of support from outside groups, doesn't mean he's in the clear for the primary because a stronger contender could still pop up.
"They're still looking very hard," he said of the groups' recruitment efforts. "I just do my job and hope that I can convince the people of Arizona."
Asked about the lack of candidates willing to challenge him and other moderate Republicans this time around, McCain said, "I think there's been a lack of what they perceive as vulnerable races, as far as I can tell."
“You'll have to ask them. I don't converse with them a lot,” he added with a laugh.
Besides McCain, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Sen. Richard Burr are among the more moderate, establishment Republicans also up for re-election. Former New Hampshire speaker Bill O'Brien recently called a secret meeting to look for candidates who could take on Ayotte in a primary. Kirk and Burr are facing primary challengers, but none who have the backing and support of prominent conservative groups and activists.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, was heavily recruited by conservatives to challenge Burr, but he decided against it in the end.
“In my view, I wasn’t the right candidate to be challenging a sitting Senate,” he told BuzzFeed News. “There’s probably a little over 4 million reasons why Richard Burr will be the next senator and nominee from North Carolina, and most of those sit in his bank account. You’ve got to have money to make a credible challenge. Grassroots will only take you so far.”
In search of those dollars to support his bid, James Marter, a software consultant running against Kirk, said he is planning a trip to Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks to meet with conservative groups.
Marter said he has just started building out his campaign's infrastructure and is hoping to show he's a viable candidate. "For a lot of reasons, I waited to see if there were going to be other challengers, and then I thought somebody needs to do this. I found out that a lot of people had been thinking the same thing," he said.
But challengers waiting it out is one of the factors that has kept conservative groups from endorsing.
"This process is moving earlier," said Doug Sachtleben, spokesman for the Club for Growth. "Gearing up by incumbents is moving earlier. Earlier is better to be prepared. It seems to us that there's been more of a later move by challengers."
Although outside groups have "caught people's attentions" in the past by spending millions against incumbents, said Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, vice chairman of Republican senators’ campaign arm, both incumbents and conservative groups are making more strategic decisions in gearing up for 2016.
"Those that are up this time, they are solid members of this chamber," Heller said. "It's very, very difficult to challenge them — looking at the slew of candidates — knowing that you'd just be wasting your money."
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